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that would have become Louis XIV., and then, in the high manner of the
old Court, kissed him on each cheek.

'Welcome to your home,' said Lord Monmouth. 'You have grown a great
deal.'

Then Lord Monmouth led the agitated Coningsby to the great lady, who was
a Princess and an Ambassadress, and then, placing his arm gracefully in
that of his grandson, he led him across the room, and presented him
in due form to some royal blood that was his guest, in the shape of
a Russian Grand-duke. His Imperial Highness received our hero as
graciously as the grandson of Lord Monmouth might expect; but no
greeting can be imagined warmer than the one he received from the lady
with whom the Grand-duke was conversing. She was a dame whose beauty was
mature, but still radiant. Her figure was superb; her dark hair crowned
with a tiara of curious workmanship. Her rounded arm was covered with
costly bracelets, but not a jewel on her finely formed bust, and the
least possible rouge on her still oval cheek. Madame Colonna retained
her charms.

The party, though so considerable, principally consisted of the guests
at the Castle. The suite of the Grand-duke included several counts and
generals; then there were the Russian Ambassador and his lady; and a
Russian Prince and Princess, their relations. The Prince and Princess
Colonna and the Princess Lucretia were also paying a visit to the
Marquess; and the frequency of these visits made some straight-laced
magnificoes mysteriously declare it was impossible to go to Coningsby;
but as they were not asked, it did not much signify. The Marquess knew
a great many very agreeable people of the highest _ton_, who took a more
liberal view of human conduct, and always made it a rule to presume the
best motives instead of imputing the worst. There was Lady St. Julians,
for example, whose position was of the highest; no one more sought; she
made it a rule to go everywhere and visit everybody, provided they had
power, wealth, and fashion. She knew no crime except a woman not
living with her husband; that was past pardon. So long as his presence
sanctioned her conduct, however shameless, it did not signify; but if
the husband were a brute, neglected his wife first, and then deserted
her; then, if a breath but sullies her name she must be crushed; unless,
indeed, her own family were very powerful, which makes a difference, and
sometimes softens immorality into indiscretion.

Lord and Lady Gaverstock were also there, who never said an unkind thing
of anybody; her ladyship was pure as snow; but her mother having been
divorced, she ever fancied she was paying a kind of homage to her
parent, by visiting those who might some day be in the same predicament.
There were other lords and ladies of high degree; and some who, though
neither lords nor ladies, were charming people, which Lord Monmouth
chiefly cared about; troops of fine gentlemen who came and went; and
some who were neither fine nor gentlemen, but who were very amusing
or very obliging, as circumstances required, and made life easy and
pleasant to others and themselves.

A new scene this for Coningsby, who watched with interest all that
passed before him. The dinner was announced as served; an affectionate
arm guides him at a moment of some perplexity.

'When did you arrive, Harry? We shall sit together. How is the Duchess?'
inquired Mr. Rigby, who spoke as if he had seen Coningsby for the first
time; but who indeed had, with that eye which nothing could escape,
observed his reception by his grandfather, marked it well, and inwardly
digested it.




CHAPTER VII.


There was to be a first appearance on the stage of Lord Monmouth's
theatre to-night, the expectation of which created considerable interest
in the party, and was one of the principal subjects of conversation at
dinner. Villebecque, the manager of the troop, had married the actress
Stella, once celebrated for her genius and her beauty; a woman who had
none of the vices of her craft, for, though she was a fallen angel,
there were what her countrymen style extenuating circumstances in
her declension. With the whole world at her feet, she had remained
unsullied. Wealth and its enjoyments could not tempt her, although
she was unable to refuse her heart to one whom she deemed worthy of
possessing it. She found her fate in an Englishman, who was the father
of her only child, a daughter. She thought she had met in him a hero, a
demi-god, a being of deep passion and original and creative mind; but
he was only a voluptuary, full of violence instead of feeling, and
eccentric, because he had great means with which he could gratify
extravagant whims. Stella found she had made the great and irretrievable
mistake. She had exchanged devotion for a passionate and evanescent
fancy, prompted at first by vanity, and daily dissipating under the
influence of custom and new objects. Though not stainless in conduct,
Stella was pure in spirit. She required that devotion which she had
yielded; and she separated herself from the being to whom she had made
the most precious sacrifice. He offered her the consoling compensation
of a settlement, which she refused; and she returned with a broken
spirit to that profession of which she was still the ornament and the
pride.

The animating principle of her career was her daughter, whom she
educated with a solicitude which the most virtuous mother could not
surpass. To preserve her from the stage, and to secure for her an
independence, were the objects of her mother's life; but nature
whispered to her, that the days of that life were already numbered.
The exertions of her profession had alarmingly developed an inherent
tendency to pulmonary disease. Anxious that her child should not be left
without some protector, Stella yielded to the repeated solicitations
of one who from the first had been her silent admirer, and she married
Villebecque, a clever actor, and an enterprising man who meant to be
something more. Their union was not of long duration, though it was
happy on the side of Villebecque, and serene on that of his wife. Stella
was recalled from this world, where she had known much triumph and more
suffering; and where she had exercised many virtues, which elsewhere,
though not here, may perhaps be accepted as some palliation of one great
error.

Villebecque acted becomingly to the young charge which Stella had
bequeathed to him. He was himself, as we have intimated, a man of
enterprise, a restless spirit, not content to move for ever in the
sphere in which he was born. Vicissitudes are the lot of such aspirants.
Villebecque became manager of a small theatre, and made money. If
Villebecque without a sou had been a schemer, Villebecque with a small
capital was the very Chevalier Law of theatrical managers. He took a
larger theatre, and even that succeeded. Soon he was recognised as the
lessee of more than one, and still he prospered. Villebecque began to
dabble in opera-houses. He enthroned himself at Paris; his envoys
were heard of at Milan and Naples, at Berlin and St. Petersburg. His
controversies with the Conservatoire at Paris ranked among state papers.
Villebecque rolled in chariots and drove cabriolets; Villebecque gave
refined suppers to great nobles, who were honoured by the invitation;
Villebecque wore a red ribbon in the button-hole of his frock, and more
than one cross in his gala dress.

All this time the daughter of Stella increased in years and stature,
and we must add in goodness: a mild, soft-hearted girl, as yet with no
decided character, but one who loved calmness and seemed little fitted
for the circle in which she found herself. In that circle, however,
she ever experienced kindness and consideration. No enterprise however
hazardous, no management however complicated, no schemes however vast,
ever for a moment induced Villebecque to forget 'La Petite.' If only for
one breathless instant, hardly a day elapsed but he saw her; she was his
companion in all his rapid movements, and he studied every comfort and
convenience that could relieve her delicate frame in some degree from
the inconvenience and exhaustion of travel. He was proud to surround
her with luxury and refinement; to supply her with the most celebrated
masters; to gratify every wish that she could express.

But all this time Villebecque was dancing on a volcano. The catastrophe
which inevitably occurs in the career of all great speculators, and
especially theatrical ones, arrived to him. Flushed with his prosperity,
and confident in his constant success, nothing would satisfy him
but universal empire. He had established his despotism at Paris, his
dynasties at Naples and at Milan; but the North was not to him, and
he was determined to appropriate it. Berlin fell before a successful
campaign, though a costly one; but St. Petersburg and London still
remained. Resolute and reckless, nothing deterred Villebecque. One
season all the opera-houses in Europe obeyed his nod, and at the end
of it he was ruined. The crash was utter, universal, overwhelming; and
under ordinary circumstances a French bed and a brasier of charcoal
alone remained for Villebecque, who was equal to the occasion. But
the thought of La Petite and the remembrance of his promise to Stella
deterred him from the deed. He reviewed his position in a spirit
becoming a practical philosopher. Was he worse off than before he
commenced his career? Yes, because he was older; though to be sure he
had his compensating reminiscences. But was he too old to do anything?
At forty-five the game was not altogether up; and in a large theatre,
not too much lighted, and with the artifices of a dramatic toilet,
he might still be able successfully to reassume those characters of
coxcombs and muscadins, in which he was once so celebrated. Luxury had
perhaps a little too much enlarged his waist, but diet and rehearsals
would set all right.

Villebecque in their adversity broke to La Petite, that the time had
unfortunately arrived when it would be wise for her to consider the most
effectual means for turning her talents and accomplishments to account.
He himself suggested the stage, to which otherwise there were
doubtless objections, because her occupation in any other pursuit would
necessarily separate them; but he impartially placed before her the
relative advantages and disadvantages of every course which seemed to
lie open to them, and left the preferable one to her own decision. La
Petite, who had wept very much over Villebecque's misfortunes, and often
assured him that she cared for them only for his sake, decided for the
stage, solely because it would secure their not being parted; and yet,
as she often assured him, she feared she had no predisposition for the
career.

Villebecque had now not only to fill his own parts at the theatre
at which he had obtained an engagement, but he had also to be the
instructor of his ward. It was a life of toil; an addition of labour
and effort that need scarcely have been made to the exciting exertion
of performance, and the dull exercise of rehearsal; but he bore it all
without a murmur; with a self-command and a gentle perseverance which
the finest temper in the world could hardly account for; certainly not
when we remember that its possessor, who had to make all these exertions
and endure all this wearisome toil, had just experienced the most
shattering vicissitudes of fortune, and been hurled from the possession
of absolute power and illimitable self-gratification.

Lord Eskdale, who was always doing kind things to actors and actresses,
had a great regard for Villebecque, with whom he had often supped. He
had often been kind, too, to La Petite. Lord Eskdale had a plan for
putting Villebecque, as he termed it, 'on his legs again.' It was to
establish him with a French Company in London at some pretty theatre;
Lord Eskdale to take a private box and to make all his friends do the
same. Villebecque, who was as sanguine as he was good-tempered, was
ravished by this friendly scheme. He immediately believed that he should
recover his great fortunes as rapidly as he had lost them. He foresaw in
La Petite a genius as distinguished as that of her mother, although as
yet not developed, and he was boundless in his expressions of gratitude
to his patron. And indeed of all friends, a friend in need is the most
delightful. Lord Eskdale had the talent of being a friend in need.
Perhaps it was because he knew so many worthless persons. But it often
happens that worthless persons are merely people who are worth nothing.

Lord Monmouth having written to Mr. Rigby of his intention to reside for
some months at Coningsby, and having mentioned that he wished a troop of
French comedians to be engaged for the summer, Mr. Rigby had immediately
consulted Lord Eskdale on the subject, as the best current authority.
Thinking this a good opportunity of giving a turn to poor Villebecque,
and that it might serve as a capital introduction to their scheme of the
London company, Lord Eskdale obtained for him the engagement.

Villebecque and his little troop had now been a month at Coningsby, and
had hitherto performed three times a-week. Lord Monmouth was content;
his guests much gratified; the company, on the whole, much approved
of. It was, indeed, considering its limited numbers, a capital company.
There was a young lady who played the old woman's parts, nothing
could be more garrulous and venerable; and a lady of maturer years who
performed the heroines, gay and graceful as May. Villebecque himself was
a celebrity in characters of airy insolence and careless frolic. Their
old man, indeed, was rather hard, but handy; could take anything either
in the high serious, or the low droll. Their sentimental lover was
rather too much bewigged, and spoke too much to the audience, a fault
rare with the French; but this hero had a vague idea that he was
ultimately destined to run off with a princess.

In this wise, affairs had gone on for a month; very well, but not too
well. The enterprising genius of Villebecque, once more a manager,
prompted him to action. He felt an itching desire to announce a novelty.
He fancied Lord Monmouth had yawned once or twice when the heroine came
on. Villebecque wanted to make a _coup._ It was clear that La Petite
must sooner or later begin. Could she find a more favourable audience,
or a more fitting occasion, than were now offered? True it was she had
a great repugnance to come out; but it certainly seemed more to her
advantage that she should make her first appearance at a private theatre
than at a public one; supported by all the encouraging patronage of
Coningsby Castle, than subjected to all the cynical criticism of the
stalls of St. James'.

These views and various considerations were urged and represented by
Villebecque to La Petite, with all the practised powers of plausibility
of which so much experience as a manager had made him master. La Petite
looked infinitely distressed, but yielded, as she ever did. And the
night of Coningsby's arrival at the Castle was to witness in its private
theatre the first appearance of MADEMOISELLE FLORA.




CHAPTER VIII.


The guests re-assembled in the great saloon before they repaired to the
theatre. A lady on the arm of the Russian Prince bestowed on Coningsby
a haughty, but not ungracious bow; which he returned, unconscious of
the person to whom he bent. She was, however, a striking person; not
beautiful, her face, indeed, at the first glance was almost repulsive,
yet it ever attracted a second gaze. A remarkable pallor distinguished
her; her features had neither regularity nor expression; neither were
her eyes fine; but her brow impressed you with an idea of power of no
ordinary character or capacity. Her figure was as fine and commanding as
her face was void of charm. Juno, in the full bloom of her immortality,
could have presented nothing more majestic. Coningsby watched her as she
swept along like a resistless Fate.

Servants now went round and presented to each of the guests a billet
of the performance. It announced in striking characters the _début_ of
Mademoiselle Flora. A principal servant, bearing branch lights, came
forward and bowed to the Marquess. Lord Monmouth went immediately to the
Grand-duke, and notified to his Imperial Highness that the comedy was
ready. The Grand-duke offered his arm to the Ambassadress; the rest were
following; Coningsby was called; Madame Colonna wished him to be her
beau.

It was a pretty theatre; had been rapidly rubbed up and renovated here
and there; the painting just touched; a little gilding on a cornice.
There were no boxes, but the ground-floor, which gradually ascended, was
carpeted and covered with arm-chairs, and the back of the theatre with a
new and rich curtain of green velvet.

They are all seated; a great artist performs on the violin, accompanied
by another great artist on the piano. The lights rise; somebody
evidently crosses the stage behind the curtain. They are disposing the
scene. In a moment the curtain will rise also.

'Have you seen Lucretia?' said the Princess to Coningsby. 'She is so
anxious to resume her acquaintance with you.'

But before he could answer the bell rang, and the curtain rose.

The old man, who had a droll part to-night, came forward and maintained
a conversation with his housekeeper; not bad. The young woman who played
the grave matron performed with great finish. She was a favourite,
and was ever applauded. The second scene came; a saloon tastefully
furnished; a table with flowers, arranged with grace; birds in cages, a
lap-dog on a cushion; some books. The audience were pleased; especially
the ladies; they like to recognise signs of _bon ton_ in the details of
the scene. A rather awful pause, and Mademoiselle Flora enters. She was
greeted with even vehement approbation. Her agitation is extreme;
she curtseys and bows her head, as if to hide her face. The face was
pleasing, and pretty enough, soft and engaging. Her figure slight and
rather graceful. Nothing could be more perfect than her costume; purely
white, but the fashion consummate; a single rose her only ornament. All
admitted that her hair was arranged to admiration.

At length she spoke; her voice trembled, but she had a good elocution,
though her organ wanted force. The gentlemen looked at each other, and
nodded approbation. There was something so unobtrusive in her mien,
that she instantly became a favourite with the ladies. The scene was not
long, but it was successful.

Flora did not appear in the next scene. In the fourth and final one
of the act, she had to make a grand display. It was a love-scene, and
rather of an impassioned character; Villebecque was her suitor. He
entered first on the stage. Never had he looked so well, or performed
with more spirit. You would not have given him five-and-twenty years; he
seemed redolent of youth. His dress, too, was admirable. He had studied
the most distinguished of his audience for the occasion, and had
outdone them all. The fact is, he had been assisted a little by a great
connoisseur, a celebrated French nobleman, Count D'O - - y, who had been
one of the guests. The thing was perfect; and Lord Monmouth took a pinch
of snuff, and tapped approbation on the top of his box.

Flora now re-appeared, received with renewed approbation. It did not
seem, however, that in the interval she had gained courage; she looked
agitated. She spoke, she proceeded with her part; it became impassioned.
She had to speak of her feelings; to tell the secrets of her heart; to
confess that she loved another; her emotion was exquisitely performed,
the mournful tenderness of her tones thrilling. There was, throughout
the audience, a dead silence; all were absorbed in their admiration of
the unrivalled artist; all felt a new genius had visited the stage; but
while they were fascinated by the actress, the woman was in torture. The
emotion was the disturbance of her own soul; the mournful tenderness of
her tones thrilled from the heart: suddenly she clasped her hands with
all the exhaustion of woe; an expression of agony flitted over her
countenance; and she burst into tears. Villebecque rushed forward, and
carried, rather than led, her from the stage; the audience looking at
each other, some of them suspecting that this movement was a part of the
scene.

'She has talent,' said Lord Monmouth to the Russian Ambassadress,
'but wants practice. Villebecque should send her for a time to the
provinces.'

At length M. Villebecque came forward to express his deep regret
that the sudden and severe indisposition of Mlle. Flora rendered it
impossible for the company to proceed with the piece; but that the
curtain would descend to rise again for the second and last piece
announced.

All this accordingly took place. The experienced performer who acted the
heroines now came forward and disported most jocundly. The failure of
Flora had given fresh animation to her perpetual liveliness. She seemed
the very soul of elegant frolic. In the last scene she figured in male
attire; and in air, fashion, and youth, beat Villebecque out of
the field. She looked younger than Coningsby when he went up to his
grandpapa.

The comedy was over, the curtain fell; the audience, much amused,
chattered brilliant criticism, and quitted the theatre to repair to
the saloon, where they were to be diverted tonight with Russian dances.
Nobody thought of the unhappy Flora; not a single message to console her
in her grief, to compliment her on what she had done, to encourage her
future. And yet it was a season for a word of kindness; so, at least,
thought one of the audience, as he lingered behind the hurrying crowd,
absorbed in their coming amusements.

Coningsby had sat very near the stage; he had observed, with great
advantage and attention, the countenance and movements of Flora from the
beginning. He was fully persuaded that her woe was genuine and profound.
He had felt his eyes moist when she wept. He recoiled from the cruelty
and the callousness that, without the slightest symptom of sympathy,
could leave a young girl who had been labouring for their amusement, and
who was suffering for her trial.

He got on the stage, ran behind the scenes, and asked for Mlle. Flora.
They pointed to a door; he requested permission to enter. Flora was
sitting at a table, with her face resting on her hands. Villebecque was
there, resting on the edge of the tall fender, and still in the dress in
which he had performed in the last piece.

'I took the liberty,' said Coningsby, 'of inquiring after Mlle. Flora;'
and then advancing to her, who had raised her head, he added, 'I am sure
my grandfather must feel much indebted to you, Mademoiselle, for making
such exertions when you were suffering under so much indisposition.'

'This is very amiable of you, sir,' said the young lady, looking at him
with earnestness.

'Mademoiselle has too much sensibility,' said Villebecque, making an
observation by way of diversion.

'And yet that must be the soul of fine acting,' said Coningsby; 'I look
forward, all look forward, with great interest to the next occasion on
which you will favour us.'

'Never!' said La Petite, in a plaintive tone; 'oh, I hope, never!'

'Mademoiselle is not aware at this moment,' said Coningsby, 'how much
her talent is appreciated. I assure you, sir,' he added, turning
to Villebecque, 'I heard but one opinion, but one expression of
gratification at her feeling and her fine taste.'

'The talent is hereditary,' said Villebecque.

'Indeed you have reason to say so,' said Coningsby.

'Pardon; I was not thinking of myself. My child reminded me so much of
another this evening. But that is nothing. I am glad you are here, sir,
to reassure Mademoiselle.'

'I came only to congratulate her, and to lament, for our sakes as well
as her own, her indisposition.'

'It is not indisposition,' said La Petite, in a low tone, with her eyes
cast down.

'Mademoiselle cannot overcome the nervousness incidental to a first
appearance,' said Villebecque.

'A last appearance,' said La Petite: 'yes, it must be the last.' She
rose gently, she approached Villebecque, she laid her head on his
breast, and placed her arms round his neck, 'My father, my best father,
yes, say it is the last.'

'You are the mistress of your lot, Flora,' said Villebecque; 'but with
such a distinguished talent - '

'No, no, no; no talent. You are wrong, my father. I know myself. I am
not of those to whom nature gives talents. I am born only for still
life. I have no taste except for privacy. The convent is more suited to



Online LibraryBenjamin DisraeliConingsby → online text (page 16 of 39)